Debates Stir Debate on Their Value
Last night's Democratic presidential debate in Charleston, S.C., was unusual for emphasizing questions posed directly by everyday people via YouTube, the video-sharing Internet site. But it did little to satisfy campaign strategists, who complain privately that there are too many such encounters featuring too many minor candidates and that they aren't very illuminating for the voters.
Strategists for the major campaigns in both parties tend to agree that preparation for the debates drains huge amounts of time and energy from the candidates and their advisers. They say the sheer number of participantseight last night, including extreme long shots such as former Sen. Mike Gravel of Alaska and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohiodiverts attention from the views of the three or four who have a realistic chance to win the nomination. And they say the debate formats, which generally limit the candidates to 30- to 60-second sound bites, lead to answers that tend to be superficial or scripted.
In other words, the fear is that the arrangements have trivialized the debates. And none of the major candidates are happy with that outcome.
All this was underscored recently when Hillary Clinton and John Edwards were captured on an open microphone discussing their desire to limit the number of presidential wannabes in the Democratic debates. But nothing has happened since then to force any changes.
What to do? Probably nothing. Strategists for two prominent candidates, one Democrat and one Republican, say none of the major campaigns want to alienate the sponsors of the debates, especially news organizations such as cable TV networks that provide intensive coverage of their activities. So their criticisms remain largely private and muted.
The major candidates also don't want to seem heavy-handed or elitist, so they remain reluctant to openly try to exclude their lesser-known rivals.
So far, there have been three Republican debates and four full-fledged Democratic debates. And, to the consternation of the major candidates, that's only the start. The GOP has at least seven more scheduled through January 2008, and the Democrats have nine.
Not that the events are totally useless. What made last night's debate interesting and helpful, according to some, was the participation of everyday Americans. The topics of their questions, sent in via YouTube as videos of 30 seconds or less, weren't really very different from what reporters ask around the country, day in and day out, as they cover the candidates. But the fact of citizen participation seemed to give the questions more power.
This time, the questions about the Iraq war or gay marriage or gun control weren't abstractions. They were made real because they were askedsometimes in refreshingly different, humorous, and creative ways-by people who were speaking from personal experience and for whom the answers were directly relevant.
And that was a healthy development for everyoneeven amid all the complaints from the campaigns about the seemingly endless proliferation of the candidate encounters.